I’ve made a living out of getting lost, from London to Tokyo to Chengdu to the backwaters of Kabul.
My job is to figure what drives human behavior, and that involves understanding context. When the team lands in a city—Yangon one week, Rio de Janeiro the next, New York the week after—we’re trying to understand the myriad contexts in which people live, love, entertain, shop, and conduct everyday life. With the pressures of time, the temptation is to go to places you’ve been and stay close to what you know—well-worn grooves where the payoff is predictable.
Today, apps, maps, and all kinds of tech do everything they can to help us not get lost. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate that the very best way to learn about a city and its inhabitants is to do the opposite. Start from somewhere unrecognized and travel to places you never counted on. Through the process of recalibrating to the unknown, you’ll have experiences outside of your comfort zone and join dots previously unconnected.
The scent of a community event. The subtle, almost imperceptible cues that something is about to go down. Trace these to the source, and catch your bearings. Concentrate on the cues, and before you know it, the known context is gone. We’ve managed to build getting lost into our suite of methods that give us a solid grounding of what a city is about. It might mean finding a point of reference, figuring out the city center, and walking in the opposite direction. Or hiring a motorbike driver and following the ebb and flow of the traffic for a few hours.
The consequences of being lost varies city by city: most Asian urban centers are safe, Cairo used to be fine but has recently taken on a sectarian edge, and places like Kabul come with significantly higher risks. Which is part of the challenge.
Getting lost today takes discipline, the willpower to avoid any app that supports accurate location: maps, check-ins, or even geo-tagged photos, where accurate location information is only a misplaced swipe away. Untether yourself and be free.